Needed Changes

With Elizabeth Warren calling for the eradication of the Electoral College, one asks the obvious question whether it might not be as well to make a number of changes to our Constitution — a dated document that could well be strengthened. One obvious change would be to address the matter of the infamous Citizens United decision which has opened the road to corruption in the form of unlimited financial donations to selected candidates who will exercise the will of the corporations who support their candidacy.

The Electoral College, of course, was established during the founding years of this nation in order to guarantee that the very best people available would be elected to the highest office in the land. The founders didn’t really trust the people and they felt it necessary to have a buffer, if you will, between the people and the elected officials. Indeed, the representatives are the only group directly elected by the people in the original Constitution and the representatives were presumed to have short terms in order to go back to work after a brief spell at governing (which paid very little). The Senate was to be selected by the state legislators and the Electoral College would select the president — not the people themselves.

Recently, however, we have seen how faulty this reasoning was when the popular vote in the most recent election selected the best qualified candidate for president by nearly three million votes and the electoral college voted against the popular vote and selected a man who has proved to be entirely unqualified for the highest office and, at times, bewildered by what is required of him.

In any event, former Supreme Court Judge John Paul Stevens, who was appointed by a Republican President, wrote a book in which he proposed six amendments to the Constitution that would bring the document more or less up to date. Not only does the Constitution ignore altogether the immense power of the corporations, but it ties the hands of government in important ways. Furthermore, it lacks the necessary checks and balances to the power of the president — ironic because that was the major thrust of the document at the outset.

The first amendment Stevens recommends is an alteration to the “Anti-Commandeering” rule in Article VI of the Constitution which

“unnecessarily and unwisely curtails the power for Congress to make use of state officials in the enforcement or administration of federal law. It creates a serious risk that the federal response to national catastrophes or acts of terrorism will be inadequate; it also impairs the efficient administration of ordinary federal programs.”

A case in point was the Printz case in 1997 following the attempt on president Reagan’s life that would establish instant background checks to prevent felons and persons with mental problems from buying guns. The problem was that state officials simply ignored the court’s decision on the grounds that the Supreme Court cannot direct states officials in their duties. In times of emergencies, such as the shootings of the children and teachers at Sandy Hook, there needs to be a quick federal response that is not hindered by questions of States’ rights. In a word, the problem does back at least to the days of the “states rights” battles that preceded the Civil War and are still hiding deep in the words of the eighteenth century Constitution.

Stevens would also introduce amendments to the Constitution that would prohibit political gerrymandering; modify campaign finance laws in order to reduce “the power of the purse in determining the outcome of elections [see above]”; the elimination of the supposed immunity of state agencies or state officers from liability for violating an act of Congress; the inclusion of the words “the death penalty” in the clause prohibiting “cruel and unusual punishment,” thereby eradicating the death penalty in all states due to the fact that it does indeed constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. And finally, Stevens proposes the insertion a simple phrase in the Second Amendment making clear the founders’ determination to arm the militia but not the entire population of the country. The Amendment would then appear as follows:

“A Well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms when serving in the Militia shall not be infringed.”

The phrase in italics would be added and the original intent of the founder made clear. The Amendment is not about the right of every Tom, Dick, and Sally to bear arms. It is about the need for an armed militia to protect the nation from foreign enemies.

In the end, whether one agrees with Stevens or not, it is clear that a document written in the eighteenth century by remarkable men who had the best interest of their country at heart is today lacking in adequate protection from the very thing they most worried about: corruption and the abuse of power. Surely, it’s time for change. Let’s start with the Electoral College!

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Not My Problem!

I wrote this more than six years ago, but my readership today, while still small, is quite different, and the point seems to me to be worth repeating. 

Some have said that it is the tendency of conservatives to embrace only those causes that affect them directly, to smile and pretend that everything is hunky-dory until events are so rude as to slap them in the face. As it happens, this is not necessarily a conservative tendency: we all share it. But the case in point is that of Ohio Senator Rob Portman who has recently come out in defense of gay marriage — after discovering that his son is gay. Matthew Yglesias notes that Sarah Palin also embraced the cause of disabled children because she happens to have one. In sports Ernie Els the golfer promotes aid for autism because he has an autistic son and Phil Mickelson began to raise money for cancer research after his wife came down with the dreaded disease. Congress and the wealthy who support this Congress ignore the plight of the poor because as Yglesias says “Congress does not have poor children.” In a word: when it is about us we take notice. Otherwise, it’s not MY problem!

In this regard, I read on Yahoo News about the terrible drought affecting Somalia where we are told that:

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Global warming may have contributed to low rain levels in Somalia in 2011 where tens of thousands died in a famine, research by British climate scientists suggests.

Scientists with Britain’s weather service studied weather patterns in East Africa in 2010 and 2011 and found that yearly precipitation known as the short rains failed in late 2010 because of the natural effects of the weather pattern La Nina.

But the lack of the long rains in early 2011 was an effect of “the systematic warming due to influence on greenhouse gas concentrations,” said Peter Scott of Britain’s Met Office, speaking to The Associated Press in a phone interview.

People are dying in that part of the world, but it isn’t us and therefore we really don’t care. And those deaths can almost certainly be connected to global warming. So many people in our part of the world, including the president and many of those in Congress,  go about their business denying the obvious and embracing fossil fuels as the solution to all of our energy problems and will continue to do so until the drought that is also affecting large portions of this country starts to drive the food prices upwards and makes some foods unaffordable or even unavailable to us. When it is about us we will start to pay attention.

We thus have a complex moral issue here. To begin with there is the convenient attitude that ignores the plight of those in need until someone close to us suddenly becomes one of those in need. Closely related is the moral failure to make ourselves aware of human suffering that requires our attention. Jean Paul Sartre insisted that we are defined by our freedom and since freedom implies responsibility that implies a moral responsibility for everything that happens anywhere on the planet. If we are not aware of a problem, we have a responsibility to find out. While this may seem a bit extreme, he makes an interesting point. And many of these problems are so severe we must make an effort to continue to ignore them, though our electronic devices are a big help in keeping our attention elsewhere (how many “likes” do I have??). Some of the problems we ignore are right next door. Or in the air and water around us.

We are clearly caught up in love of self and the determination to deal only with those problems that affect us directly, forgetting that we are part of a human community and as such have obligations to all who suffer, obligations which require — at the very least — that we not ignore the plight of others.  The moral imperative that seems to weaken as time rolls on is the one that directs us to take action to prevent evil whenever and wherever we see it and also demands that we take notice even when it doesn’t happen to affect us directly. Awareness of a problem coupled with the ability to address it, if not remedy it, implies a responsibility to act. It all begins by opening our eyes to what is going on around us.  Our active concern shouldn’t have to wait until the problem is in our back yard.

The Hope For Our Future …

The kids know more than their representatives in Washington!

Filosofa's Word

The best news of the week was brought to us by students skipping school!  That’s right … kids from 123 nations chose to take a stand, to make their voices heard about climate change, so they played hookey, skipped school and engaged in peaceful protest on Friday.

Last October, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that without dramatic change, global emissions are set to rise to a level that would usher in catastrophic consequences in just over a decade. Exactly one month later, the historic Camp Fire broke out in Paradise, California, claiming 85 lives and destroying more than 15,000 structures.

There are three types of reactions to this:  1) those who still claim to deny that human activities are destroying our atmosphere, 2) those who agree and somewhat understand that climate change is indeed a very imminent threat, but do nothing, and 3) those who are…

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Blueprint of the Bourgeois

If Hanna Arendt is to be believed, and I strongly suspect she is, Thomas Hobbes writing in the seventeenth century provided us with the blueprint of the bourgeois personality, one who is relentlessly engaged in the process of acquiring wealth, the type that would become the predominant character, world-wide, in the three hundred years that have followed. In this regard, she tells us that:

“There is hardly a single bourgeois moral standard which has not been anticipated by the unequaled magnificence of Hobbes’ logic. He gives an almost complete picture, not of Man but of the bourgeois man, an analysis which in three hundred years has neither been outdated nor excelled. ‘Reason . . . is nothing but Reckoning’; ‘a free Subject, a free Will . . . [are words] . . . without meaning; that is to say, Absurd.’ A being without reason, without the capacity for truth, and without free will — that is, without the capacity for responsibility — bourgeois man is essentially a function of society and judged therefore according to his ‘value or worth . . . his price; that is to say so much as would be given for the use of his power.’ This price is constantly evaluated and reevaluated by society, the ‘esteem of others,’ . . . “

The bourgeois was originally the owner of the means of production who was the bane of Karl Marx’s existence, the ugly capitalist who ground his workers under his foot, stealing the profits they made and keeping the profits for himself. The capitalist today may no longer own the means of production. He may own properties, deal in stocks and bonds, or more than likely be the C.E.O. of a multinational corporation. He might even be a professional athlete! He has become the man Hobbes described early on, a man fixated on making more money than he can possibly spend in his lifetime. The amorality of the bourgeois who simply wants to live well soon becomes the immorality of the exploiter and the dodger of taxes who uses others and places additional burdens on those who can ill afford to take up the weight. All of this is predicated on his fascination with wealth and power as ends in themselves. As Arendt notes:

“The so-called accumulation of capital which gave birth to the bourgeois changed the very conception of property and wealth: they were no longer considered the results of accumulation and acquisition but their beginnings; wealth became a never-ending process of getting wealthier. The classification of the bourgeois as an owning class is only superficially correct, for a characteristic of this class has been that anyone could belong to it who conceived of life as a process of perpetually becoming wealthier, and considered money as something sacrosanct which under no circumstances should be a mere commodity for consumption.”

Arendt thought the Leviathan, Hobbes major work, provided the blueprint I mentioned at the outset. The type of person he describes feeds on raw competition, creating in the world of the bourgeoisie a war of man against man, survival of the fittest. Hobbes said this was a state of nature and suggested that in such a state life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. In this state humans cease to be human and become pawns in a game in which the capitalist himself becomes wealthy at the cost of those who oppose him.

Needless to say, this blueprint has changed considerably since Hobbes drew it. Raw capitalism has never seen the light of day, the state of nature becoming in the transition a bit of an exaggeration. Capitalism has always been tempered by remnants of Christian ethics and the rule of law, constraints on the raw greed that motivates the man or woman who seeks only money and more money, a person Arendt describes as “more-than-rich.” In this country we have a number of such laws that prohibit the unfettered growth of capital in the hands of a few — or so it would seem. But those who are more-than-rich spend much of their time working to make sure that those laws and those restraints — such as tax laws and the E.P.A., for example — are rendered nugatory, weakened so that the government cannot effectively interfere with the making of huge profits. The type Hobbes describes still exists.

There are good people owning property and paying others to work for them. And there are private owners of small corporations who do not exploit their employees. To be sure. These people do not fit the blueprint that Hobbes provided us with. But for the “more-than-rich” in this country the blueprint is accurate: there are those who would squash all opposition underfoot in order to amass more and more wealth –money beyond reckoning — thereby creating ugly juxtapositions. Athletes sign multi-million dollar contracts while many others around them must work two jobs or have no place to live and no food on the table. The average corporate C.E.O. in this country makes nearly 400 times as much annually as his or her average employee. And the C.E.O. typically pays little or no income taxes.

The picture is unpleasant, but it is not overblown. We claim to be a Christian country (or some make the claim) while at the same time we see around us the 1% growing richer, the middle class disappearing, and the more-than-poor growing poorer and more numerous. What this means, it seems to me, is that those laws that protect the rest of us against the rich must be enforced and even strengthened because the blueprint that Hobbes provided us with in the seventeenth century is not the least bit exaggerated when it comes to describing unfettered capitalism, including the type of person who flourishes in our day and who would just as soon see all around him fail as long as he amasses great wealth.

Because I Can

A comic I regularly read in order to maintain some semblance of sanity in this insane world gave me pause recently. One of the characters is bragging that he has a new app on his smart phone that flushes his toilet at home when he is not there. His friend asks why he would want to do that and he answers: “Because I can.”  Aside from being amusing, my friends, this is the technological imperative in a humorous vein. We do things without asking why simply because we can.

Strictly speaking, however, we aren’t doing much of anything. The character in the comic simply presses a button, as so many of us do to make things happen. And then we take pride in the fact that “WE” can do remarkable things. It’s not we at all, of course, but the device we hold in our hand that allows us to perform those minor miracles.

Gabriel Marcel, years ago, wrote of the pride folks feel when they see an airplane lift off into the clear sky, the sense of pride they have in seeing their fellow humans free themselves once again from the pull of gravity and take off into the great beyond. He warned us that there is something seriously wrong with this pride we feel. Again, we feel pride in seeing something someone else has done, not we ourselves — though even the pride we feel in our own accomplishments can be problematic.

In fact, pride has always been a problem. It was so for the Greeks who warned about an excess of pride, or hubris as it was called. There was a certain appropriateness in feeling the pride of being a Greek, of course — after all as such we are not “barbarians” (the name they used to refer to everyone else). But anything beyond that, anything in excess of the allotted amount, if you will, leads inexorably to tragedy. This was the point of the Greek plays that showed us again and again what happens when humans begin to think they are gods. There are things we can do as humans and there are things we cannot do — and things we should not do; we need to continue to remind ourselves what those limits are.

The Christian religion also had problems with pride, listing it among the cardinal sins — not just an excess of pride, but any pride at all. After all, we are creatures of God and whatever pathetic accomplishments we might list on our résumé are ultimately the result of God’s powers and gifts. We can take no pride in doing anything we do because the good that we do is God working through us. We must, rather, become humble.

To be sure, the Christian proscription holds little sway these days, as indeed does the Christian religion itself. We have shown ourselves unwilling to answer to the Christian demands for sacrifice and vows of poverty and we are even less likely to refuse to allow that we don’t accomplish great things ourselves — or take pride in the work of other human beings: we are not about to pass along the credit for human accomplishments to an unknown force about Whom we have serious doubts.

But in refusing to take seriously the warnings about pride and about its possible excesses we flirt with disaster. This is especially true in this nuclear age and it is also true in our industrial age when we see the waters around us rising, islands in the Pacific disappearing, and the tundra and ice caps melting, yet we simply ignore those things because we are confident that somehow at some point some human being or other will figure out how to deal with the problem and it will go away.

I sometimes wonder if the success of the space program — which takes us all away from this earth, and even promises the possibility of travel to other planets — has not been one of the major factors in causing so many people to somehow debase the earth, to deny, or at the very least ignore, the awful things we are doing to the Mother us all. Like the man watching the plane lift off into the sky, we take pride in the fact that human beings are no longer “tied” to earth. Our collective chests swell with pride. The earth is simply one more satellite circumnavigating the sun and when it has become wasted we will simply colonize another planet either in this solar system or one not so very far away. The games we play and movies we flock to assure us that this is a possibility.

It seems preposterous, doesn’t it? But I do wonder — just as I do wonder how so many people can ignore the fact of climate change and blindly assume that somehow it can be fixed. After all, we are humans and there is nothing we cannot do if we put our minds to it! There’s that pride, my friends, there lies the germ of tragedy. The Greeks knew.

Easily Duped?

(This post might best be regarded as a companion piece to the post on Totalitarianism that recently appeared.)

During the early years of the twentieth century Communism was exported around the world as part of the Bolsheviks’ attempts to initiate a world-wide revolution and guarantee that their way of life would be adopted (one way or another) by all countries. As a political and economic program it had many attractions — especially for the disenfranchised and, surprisingly, for intellectuals as well.

In this country many intellectuals and artists who taught at universities, wrote poetry or novels, or acted on the stage or screen were duped into thinking that Communism was the answer to the world’s problems. After all, it resembles Christianity in many ways  — while Christianity had become inoperative for a great many people. It proposes a society in which the greedy capitalist pig is ground under foot; no one goes without; everyone is equal and free and all participate in their own futures. Or at least that was what thinkers like Karl Marx and Lenin promised. The reality was that millions of lives were sacrificed for the cause, even innocent lives, at the hands of the Cheka established by Lenin who acted with no restraints whatever. The lives of the innocent were said to be, with no regrets, “an example.” However, the messages coming out of Russia suggested to the unwary that Marx’s dream was being realized: the people were being set free and were in the process of determining their own futures. And the reason the blissful message was coming across the ocean and around the world was because the Bolsheviks had discovered the power of propaganda.

One of the intellectuals to be taken in by the blatant falsehoods coming out of Russia was Lionel Trilling, the brilliant essayist and teacher at Columbia University. He flirted with Communism, as did so many of his liberal colleagues (including George Orwell and my advisor at Northwestern as it happens) and eventually after he became aware of the huge gap between theory and practice in Russia he wrote a novel that reflected his own experience. In that novel, The Middle of The journey, one of the main characters is a powerful figure in the Communist party in America who has seen the light and wants to disengage himself from the Party and the atrocities that have been committed in its name. But he fears for his life, because such is the reality of the Bolshevik mentality: you are either with us or you are against us.

We struggle to understand how so many brilliant minds could have been easily duped into thinking that a political program would deliver on its promises and create heaven on earth. As suggested above, it was because of the fact that the Bolsheviks controlled the media in Russia and they didn’t allow journalists from other countries into theirs without a guarantee that they would control what was said and/or written. The only newspaper to refuse those conditions was the London Times. The rest of the world accepted the lies because they wanted to believe them. Moreover, it gave them hope. They could not accept the fact that what was told them was carefully selected and colored to present the best possible picture.

In his study of the Russian Revolution, Richard Pipes gives us an insight into just how effective this propaganda machine was (one which the Nazis later copied almost exactly):

“Communist propaganda strove, and to a surprising extent succeeded, in creating a fictitious world side by side with that of everyday experience and in stark contrast to it, in which the Soviet citizens were required to believe or pretend to believe. To this end the Communist Party asserted a monopoly over every source of information and opinion and, in time, severed all contacts of its subjects with the outside world. The effort was undertaken on such a vast scale, with such ingenuity and determination, that the imaginary universe it projected eclipsed for many Soviet citizens the living reality, inflicting on them something akin to intellectual schizophrenia.”

Now, this was how propaganda worked within Russia. It was not this successful when transported to other countries. But for those, like Trilling, who cared about their fellow human beings who were starving on long lines waiting for a cup of soup, especially during the depressions that were not uncommon within numerous capitalist countries, what they heard about Communism sounded like the answer to their prayers. Karl Marx was, after all, an ethicist more than an economist. His message in Capital, for example, was about the exploitation of the workers by greedy, selfish owners who cared only about profits. The intellectuals in this country and In Spain and England, especially, saw this going on around them. There was enough truth in the messages they were allowed to read and hear from Russia to cause many of them to join the Party that promised to deliver the franchise to the chronically  disenfranchised. Or at least, they would have a piece of the pie they were themselves making.

We now live in different times, but there are powerful political forces in this country, and others as well, who would silence a free press, dismiss unpleasant truths as “false news,”  and control the information we receive, colored and flavored to their taste. There are those who would silence opposing points of view. There are those who lie as a matter of course in order to convince the faithful that they have all the answers. There are those who have convinced themselves and a coterie of followers that the end justifies the means, any means. Thus is a free press more important now than ever before, as is an alert and even a suspicious citizenry.

While we are not in Russia during the 20s and 30s, we are in a country where the freedom we prize and which so much defines us is under threat by some who would make us prisoners of their minds — not unlike Lenin and, later, Stalin. We must avoid exaggeration and paranoia, but we would be well advised to be on our guard.

Totalitarian Threats?

Hannah Arendt wrote The Origins Of Totalitarianism nearly 70 years ago and it focused primarily on Germany and Russia, the countries that at that time were most obviously totalitarian in their treatment of their citizens. One might think that such a book with that particular focus would be  dated and not at all relevant to today’s world. After all, Germany and Russia are no longer the countries they were when Arendt wrote. But the totalitarian tendencies about which she was most interested survive to this day — and not only in those countries, but elsewhere as well.

I venture to predict that as the pressures on all of the countries in the world become greater with the globe warming and food and water increasingly scarce the totalitarian threat will become an increasing concern: power will devolve to fewer and fewer hands to control unrest. And, as Lord Acton reminded us long ago “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But I also worry about today and about the trend in this country, led as it is by a man who completely misunderstands the workings of a free society, a man who has shown himself in sympathy with some of the most autocratic leaders on the globe and who has also shown those tendencies himself.

In any event I shall let Arendt speak for herself. I will only add that when she speaks of the “elite” she speaks about the “intelligentsia,” those who have had the most schooling (but may not be well educated) and have assumed leadership roles — those, for example, who have assumed positions of strength in our universities and colleges. And bear in mind that in the not-so-distant past the intelligentsia, especially the young radicals, tended to support the Jacobites, the Nazis and the Communists.  As she says:

“. . .  there is no doubt that the elite [in Germany and Russia] . . . did not object at all to paying a price, the destruction of civilization, for the fun of seeing how those who had been excluded unjustly in the past might force their way into it. They were not particularly outraged at the monstrous forgeries in historiography of which totalitarian regimes are guilty and which announce themselves clearly enough in totalitarian propaganda. They had convinced themselves that traditional historiography was a forgery in any case, since it had excluded the underprivileged and oppressed from the memory of mankind [think: “New History”]. Those who were rejected by their own time were usually forgotten by history, and insult added to injury had troubled all sensitive consciences ever since faith in a hereafter where the last shall be first had disappeared. Injustices in the past as well as the present became intolerable when there was no longer any hope that the scales of justice eventually would be set right. Marx’s great attempt to rewrite world history in terms of class struggles fascinated even those who did not believe in the correctness of his thesis, because of his original intention to find a device by which to force the destinies of those excluded from official history into the memory of posterity. . . .

“To this aversion of the intellectual elite for official historiography, to its conviction that history, which was a forgery anyway, might as well be the playground of crackpots [again, think: “New History”], must be added the terrible, demoralizing fascination with the possibility that gigantic lies and monstrous falsehoods can eventually be established as unquestioned facts, that man may be free to change his own past at will, and that the difference between truth and falsehood may cease to be objective, and become a mere matter of power and cleverness, of pressure and infinite repetition. . . .

“Totalitarianism in power invariably replaces all first-rate talents, regardless of their sympathies, with those crackpots and fools whose lack of intelligence and creativity is still the best guarantee of their loyalty.”

In describing what might be said about the present state of many of our universities and colleges, not to say society itself, she is revealing to us the way the “elite” take over the minds of the young students and outside the academy how propaganda works by recasting the truth in the form of, shall we say,  “false news.” And her discussion of those who have “been excluded unjustly” from the seats of power and who now struggle to find a place at the table is timely indeed  — especially since the “excluded” in America have managed to elect one of their own to the position of greatest power in this country if not the world.

There is more, of course. A great deal more — including a remarkable analysis of the totalitarian type, which is to say, the type of person attracted to absolute power and the steps such a type will take in order to acquire and maintain power. Regarding Hitler, for example, she had this to say:

“Society is always prone to accept a person offhand for what he pretends to be, so that a crackpot posing as a genius always has a certain chance to be believed. In modern society with its characteristic lack of discerning judgment, this tendency is strengthened so that someone who not only holds opinions but also presents them in a tone of unshakable conviction will not so easily forfeit his prestige, no matter how many times he has been demonstrably wrong.”

In reading Arendt’s analysis bells continually go off, especially her description of modern society with its “characteristic lack of discerning judgment.”  I put that down to our floundering education system, as you know. She understood power and its abuses perhaps as well as or even better than Machiavelli. More to the point, her analysis is timely and shines a light on contemporary America, revealing aspects of our present situation that we must always try to understand and struggle against if we are to remain free.

Critical Thinking

The buzzwords these days in many colleges and universities around the country are “critical thinking.” At our university where I taught for 37 years a mandate came down from on high not long ago that critical thinking would be required of all graduates forthwith. It was a mandate to all state universities and each was allowed to determine just how to accommodate the requirement.  A great idea, no doubt. But the reality was that it was like throwing a handful of feed to a cluster of hungry chickens! Every department realized that such a requirement was a way to get students into the classroom and pretty much every department in the college proposed one or two of their own courses as a way to meet the mandate. In other  words, every department in the university, with few exceptions, insisted that they taught critical thinking in their courses.

Were that it were so. I have always thought that critical thinking can be taught across the curriculum, and have even led workshops in helping other faculty members see how it could be done. I thought, for example, that accounting and economics, not to say chemistry and even engineering were rich sources for the critical thinker to explore. The same can be said for several of the other departments in the university. But not all. Seriously: critical thinking in sports science??

The home of critical thinking is the philosophy department where logic and critical thinking have been housed since time began — or at least since such courses appeared on the scene. Logic, of course, was a part of the original “trivium” that comprised a part of the seven liberal arts that go back to the medieval period, the birth of the modern university in such places as Paris. But the mandate from on high failed to indicate just how the courses in critical thinking were to be implemented and in doing so they opened Pandora’s Box.

It is not the case that critical thinking is in fact taught in all (or nearly all) courses across the board — sad to say. Though, as I mentioned, I think it can be taught across the board. But the course demands that students be taught how to recognize arguments and distinguish them from simple exposition, locate suppressed premises or assumptions, identify conclusions and separate them from the support for those conclusions — how do we determine where the conclusion lies if we do not have “indicator words” like “therefore,” or “it follows that”? Most arguments appear without such indicators and a careful reader must be able to ferret out the point of the argument before she can begin to think about it critically. It has to do with asking the right questions.

And once the conclusion has been located and the support for that conclusion identified, how compelling is that support for that conclusion? Are any fallacies committed, formal or informal? What are the differences between formal and informal fallacies? These are questions that are central to critical thinking and these are questions that few disciplines with which I am familiar focus upon. For many people critical thinking means sitting around shooting the bull and letting the discussion go where it wants. Those same people seem to think that thinking itself just happens. It doesn’t, not careful thinking. It takes work. As Toynbee said, it is as difficult as is walking on two legs is for a monkey.

Thus we have the interesting but confusing situation in which a sensible mandate has come down from on high and has been met with a plethora of courses that all claim to teach critical thinking while, in fact, very few do. How do I know this? Because I have examined LSAT results over the years and the disciplines that stress critical thinking reward their students with excellent LSAT scores and therefore prepare them nicely for law school where critical thinking is essential. The majority of academic disciplines — even some of those traditionally regarded as the best disciplines to prepare students for law school — do not.

Unfortunately, these are the realities with which we must deal on a daily basis in today’s university. Good ideas become fluff. The demand that the student be prepared to think critically, in this case, is replaced by the demand on the part of faculty across the board that they be allowed a piece of the pie (in the form of what are lovingly called F.T.E. or “full-time equivalent”) — students who sit in the classroom and pay the bills. Instead of thinking about the students and their real needs, many in the faculty think only about their own chosen academic discipline and determine to protect their domain at all costs — even at the cost of the education of the young.

It is not the case that I have nothing good to say about todays universities and colleges. There are good people out there doing good things. But there are also these sorts of SNAFUs. My point here is to note a trend. There are always exceptions to trends and to generalizations (that’s something one learns in a good critical thinking course!). That is to say, there are excellent people in the classrooms across the nation doing excellent things. But not all mandates yield excellent results. Especially when those mandates come from administrators who are not themselves very well educated.

STEM And The Liberal Arts

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a group in Washington, D.C. that is attempting to hold the feet of colleges and universities to the fire as far as academic core requirements are concerned, recently awarded a prize to the President of Purdue University, Mitchell E. Daniels, Jr.  The interesting thing about this is that Purdue is primarily an engineering school — or Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, if you will — and it is taking the lead in finding a place for the liberal arts at the heart of its academic program while insisting that young people at that university be guaranteed the right to hear conflicting points of view: none shall be turned away (as is increasingly the fashion today). This is interesting  because the liberal arts around the country are suffering from neglect and in many cases those who are charged with their defense are the most active in their dissolution.

In any event, at Purdue whatever reform or restoration that might take place is happening from the outside since, as Daniels points out, help from the inside, from among those faculty who actually teach the Liberal Arts, is not likely. Growing numbers of them are intent on bringing down the tradition and replacing it with the latest fad popular among those who would refashion Western Civilization to conform to their own idea of what it should be.

Daniels recently addressed a group at the A.C.T.A. and some of what he says is worth quoting because I have said many of the same things, but I am a small voice and many might think it is an isolated voice and also somewhat strained and even frantic in its concern for what I regard as some of the most important factors operating within — and without — the Halls of Ivy. Daniels, for example, reminds us that:

“The concerns most often voiced about the current university scene — conformity of thought, intolerance of dissent and sometimes an authorial tendency to quash it, a rejection of the finest of the Western and Enlightenment traditions in favor of unscholarly revisionism and pseudo-disciplines — these and other problems are not unique to the liberal arts departments, but a host of surveys document that they are most common and most pronounced there.

“A monotonously one-sided view of the world  deprives students of the chance to hear and consider alternatives, and to weigh them for themselves in the process of what we call ‘critical thinking.’ . . .

“Former Stanford Provost John Etchemendy has written, ‘Intellectual homogeneity weakens the academy’; he labelled the ad hominem attacks that homogeneous tribes often directed at dissenters as ‘the death knell of inquiry.’ Perhaps Princeton’s Keith Whittington has stated the point most concisely: ‘Ignorance flourishes where free inquiry is impeded.’ . . . .

“Conformity of thought, enforced by heavy-handed peer pressure and reinforced by self-perpetuating personal practices, has by now achieved come-tragic proportions. At one prestigious eastern university a friend recounts that, when he asked the history department chairman if he had any Republicans on his faculty, the answer was, ‘Have any? We don’t know any.'”

Another recipient of an award from the A.C.T.A., Paul S. Levy, joined Daniels in his concerns over the state of the colleges and universities today. He began by quoting Yeats and then commented as follows:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

    Are full of passionate intensity. . . .                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         “This is what is happening on our campuses today: group think, suppression of speech, knee-jerk conclusions, a disdain for facts and proof, assumptions of guilt rather than innocence.”

What Daniels and Levy are referring to here is the alarming tendency — even among so-called “prestige” universities — to refuse certain speakers to be heard on campus because their political leaning is not in the proper direction coupled with the presence on campus of those within the faculty who refuse to allow conflicting points of view to be heard. Critical thinking is not at the top of the list for those who see as the only worthwhile academic goal the radical transformation of the university, and ultimately contemporary society itself, to fit the mold they hold dear to their hearts — a mold that is not all that clear either to  themselves or those who listen to them rant.

Now I have voiced many of these  concerns over the years in this blog, but I think it important that my readers hear another voice or two — and voices at the forefront of the fight to preserve what is precious and vital to the continued existence of what we call “civilization.” This is not right-wing clap trap. It is a serious situation within the academy that threatens our free society. And while the battles that go on within the walls of the Ivory Towers of academe might seem trivial and unimportant to those without those walls, it is not. As Levy maintains,

“. . .we are living the fact that what happens at American universities and colleges affects our entire society. We are at risk.”

Daniels elaborates:

“The worn out jokes about the stakes being so low in higher education debates do not apply to this one. In the struggle to define what a genuine liberal education should be, the stakes could hardly be greater, because it can be argued that we have never needed effective teaching in the liberal tradition more than today. Even the most gifted young people often emerge from today’s K-12 systems appallingly ignorant of either history or the workings of their own nation’s free institutions. Authoritarians of both Left and Right are eager to take advantage of their ignorance. There was a reason that the last sultans of the Ottoman Empire banned the teaching of literature and history throughout their realms.”

And, indeed, in Huxley’s brave new world literature, philosophy and history are ignored by the citizens as they blindly seek pleasure and follow the lead of those who would establish the latest trend. But that, of course, is fiction.

 

Words To Ponder

Ulysses S. Grant was a truly remarkable general during the Civil War. After several of his generals failed to win a single battle in the first years of the war, Lincoln heard about a general in the West who was winning in stunning fashion. He considered bringing the general East and putting him in charge of the Army of the Potomac which was gun-shy and had a habit of losing. He was warned that the man was a drinker and he famously said, “Find out what he is drinking and give some to the rest of my generals.” The rest, as they say, is history. Grant went on to defeat the man whom many regard as an even greater general than he was.

In the event, Grant became President of the United States. As is often the case with the “Peter Principle” it happened that a person who was good in one position demonstrated after promotion that he was not very good at another. In a word, his presidency was repleat with scandals and Grant was at best a fair and middling president, great general though he was.

But he was brilliant and a wordsmith whose battle-field commands to his troops were written with remarkable clarity and who was able late in life, at the urging of his good friend Mark Twain, to write his Personal Memoirs which are regarded as an example of the highest expression of the writer’s craft. His words not only sounded and read well, they made sense. Unlike a president whose name will not be mentioned, the man could make his ideas crystal clear and his ideas were worth pondering.

A good friend of mine is currently reading a biography of Grant written by Ron Chernow and he was so impressed by a passage in the biography he sent it to me and I would like to share it with you. If nothing else, it provides a sharp contrast to the outpourings of words that comes forth from the Oval Office these days. But it provides a great deal more. It provides ideas worth pondering.

Note that when Grant talks about “free schools” he is talking about public education which has lately come under fire and is blamed by many for the growing number of shortcomings this country has experienced. Indeed, there are those on the right of the political spectrum who would eliminate public education altogether and insist that the government subsidize private schools.  Many of those are of the “spiritually certain” persuasion who insist upon melding in mysterious ways church and state. Grant opposed both. Chernow begins with a quote from Grant:

“‘The free school is the promoter of that intelligence which is to preserve us as a nation.’ He affirmed that in the near future, ‘the dividing line will not be Mason & Dixon but between patriotism, & intelligence on the one side & superstition, ambition & ignorance on the other.’ He wound up with an eloquent appeal for separating church and state: ‘Encourage free schools and resolve that not one dollar of money appropriated to their support no matter how raised, shall be appropriated to the support of any sectarian school … Leave the matter of religion to the family circle, the church & the private school support[ed] entirely by private contributions. Keep the church and the state forever separate.’”

Let’s focus on the initial comment: “The free [public] school is the promoter of that intelligence which is to preserve us as a nation.” This strikes me as a penetrating observation as it brings together two ideas that are often found far apart: the preservation of a free society and the education of the young. The founders knew, as did Grant, that these two must be bound together and protected against erosion from special interests, greed, and the lust for power. The latter forces are taking over in this country as we find increasing evidence that our young people are not intelligent (on the whole) and the schools are failing while defending themselves from demands that they be all things to all people — and do so for little or no money.

It is time for us to face the fact that this country will not survive as a Republic if the education system is not radically overhauled. This will require at the very least that the teachers who are overworked and under-compensated be paid an attractive salary and at the same time that the Education Establishment (smilingly referred to as the “Blob”) acknowledges that the system is not working. Compared with tiny Finland, for example, the United States is failing its children. Period. Full stop. The teachers in Finland are rewarded for their efforts and the best and brightest college graduates seek jobs in the classroom whereas in this country we attract the students from the lower third of the student population in our public colleges and universities. Teaching doesn’t pay in America and it lacks prestige. This is not a formula for success.

Education must be a top priority in a country where athletes earn obscene amounts of money and teachers must work in the Summers simply to make ends meet. There is no question that were the priorities of this government different a great deal of money might be spent healing the wounds in public education instead of, say, building a wall separating this country from Mexico. The money is there. We simply choose to spend it on wall-building and what we like to call “defense.” But we need to defend ourselves against ignorance which is the greater threat to this country and to the ideals that have made it great.

Let us, indeed, make America great again. Let us inject lifeblood into a sick and weakened education system which we require to “preserve us as a nation.”